Two Admirals for an Ensign

By Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The Act of 5 August 1881

At graduation exercises for the Class of 1881, President James A. Garfield exuded unbridled optimism for the future of the graduates: "The world is open to you, and if naval service does not bring you success then you are lazy or hopelessly incompetent. Gentlemen, as I stand here I almost experience a feeling of envy when I think of the possible future before you." While Garfield warmed to his audience, congressional critics looked askance at the burgeoning numbers of Navy officers on the muster rolls.

Garfield's patronizing euphoria ran contrary to the dismal reports of his Secretary of the Navy. In 1880 the Navy counted 1 admiral, 1 vice admiral, 11 rear admirals, and 25 commodores—all of whom had entered service between 1837 and 1840. Languishing beneath them on the lineal list were no fewer than 50 captains, who had accepted commissions between 1849 and 1860. Further below were 90 commanders, 80 lieutenant commanders, 280 lieutenants, 100 masters, and 100 ensigns. Despite these obvious overages, the classes then in session at Annapolis promised to exacerbate the problem: 62 in the Class of 1880; 78 in the Class of 1881; 51 in the Class of 1882; and 63 in the Class of 1883. Deploring these numbers, Secretary of the Navy Richard W. Thompson recommended that Naval Academy candidates serve apprenticeships of two years at sea, suggesting that those young men whose ardor for life at sea had waned or who demonstrated a lack of fitness for the naval service would no longer be educated at great expense to the government. Sadly, his timely prescription fell on deaf ears.

A year later, Secretary of the Navy William E. Hunt reported that he had 140 vessels of all types in commission (including 25 tugs) but that "a large number of them were entirely useless." He included an "admiral's report" in his Annual Report from no less an icon than Admiral David Dixon Porter. The venerable Civil War hero argued that "the numbers of appointments to the Naval Academy have so increased that the number of graduates is far in excess of the wants of the Navy." Porter noted that the Navy had, in reality, only 32 seaworthy fighting ships. With the usual complement of five midshipmen per ship, only 160 were required; 167, however, trained and studied at Annapolis to fill vacancies that did not exist. Worse, the average midshipman would be too old for the duties of ensign when promoted to that rank. Porter calculated that it would take a midshipman nine years to make ensign, another six to reach the rank of master, ten more to gain a lieutenant's stripes, and he would be eligible for commander at about the time he reached mandatory retirement age. "Officers kept too long in inferior positions become useless to the service," Porter intoned. He recommended three solutions: reduce the number of cadets entering the Naval Academy, increase the standards for admission, and graduate and commission only 20 officers each year.

A strident Department of the Navy ignored Porter's advice. Junior officers argued for a selective pruning to eliminate the aged and redundant, but so many sinecures enjoyed powerful congressional patronage that such a solution appeared impossible. With no solution emanating from naval circles, Congress took the matter under advisement. Beginning in the fall of 1881 and into the spring of 1882 the naval affairs committees and then the appropriations committees contemplated a solution. Meanwhile, Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler offered a gloomy perspective: "The condition of the Navy imperatively demands the prompt and earnest action of Congress. Unless some action be had in its behalf it must soon dwindle into insignificance."

No evidence demonstrates that Capitol Hill appreciated the warning signs. More than a decade earlier, Congress had made a feeble attempt to trim the lineal list but failed. Whatever scrutiny the dismal personnel situation attracted, it appeared overshadowed by concerns over material. Legislation introduced in 1880 addressed only shortages in shipping and tonnage—not the glut of officers. Lawmakers devoted attention to such puerile concerns as determining the precedence of paymasters and legislation for a meager maintenance of the fleet.

The Naval Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 1881 passed the House on 22 April 1880 without significant discussion and debate, and the following June an additional 61 naval cadets and 17 cadet engineers from Annapolis joined the fleet to fill steerage vacancies that did not exist. Despite the burgeoning rolls, Secretary Thompson had spoken of Navy careers for the graduates of the Class of 1880. But an altogether new set of forces emerged and then converged on Capitol Hill to alter the Navy's officer corps so radically that it would require more than a decade to recover.

In the fall of 1882, a new force of personalities increasingly influenced or dominated naval legislation. At the forefront stood Representative George M. Robeson. A New Jersey lawyer, Robeson had served an uninspired and controversial term as President Ulysses S. Grant's Secretary of the Navy (26 January 1869 to 12 March 1877) almost through Grant's entire term of office. Although defeated for a Senate seat in 1877, Robeson was elected to the House in 1878 and again in 1880. Perhaps because of his former position, congressional leadership determined that Robeson appeared ideal to chair a special House subcommittee to fashion legislation reducing the Navy's officer ranks. Despite this supposed expertise, critics questioned his leadership and impartiality. But with dogged determination and ferocity, Robeson steered the naval personnel bill with an alacrity that surprised his colleagues in the upper chamber.

Even before Robeson entered the fray, Secretary Chandler offered the Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Captain Franklin M. Ramsay, an opportunity to comment on Senate Bill 1578. This gesture suggests—despite the belief of naval cadets and cadet engineers that the Secretary of the Navy had championed their cause—that Chandler supported legislation that would dash hopes of a naval career for most of the classes of 1881 and beyond. Ramsay argued that the limitations applied only to the grade of ensign, rather than to the entire order of rank. The superintendent recommended that all graduates serve at sea prior to becoming eligible for commissioning. Finally, and perhaps recognizing an obvious inequity, Ramsay objected to placing cadet engineers on the same merit roll as the naval cadets following completion of post-graduation examinations.

After the fiscal year 1882 Naval Appropriations Bill passed, the House considered a bill to require that cadet engineers and naval cadets remain in service after graduation for as long as the government wanted them. The congressman who introduced the ill-conceived legislation argued in vain that Naval Academy graduates should not be allowed to resign after realizing the benefits of a free education. But just a week after graduation exercises for the Class of 1881, the Academy's Board of Visitors issued a report that led to the Act of 5 August 1882. In the report, the influential body opined that: "only enough cadets shall graduate from the Naval Academy to make good the annual waste of the Navy, and that Congress should, by careful legislation, provide against the accumulation of midshipmen and cadet engineers to grow old in those inferior grades, to the manifest injury to the naval services, its discipline, and its usefulness." A few months later, Admiral C. R. P. Rodgers reinforced this timely warning, urging the immediate reduction of cadet engineers and naval cadets so that graduates of the Naval Academy could be commissioned immediately upon matriculation. He noted that 200 graduates lingered patiently on a waiting list, meaning that the graduates of the Class of 1880 likely would wait 12 years before becoming ensigns. Secretary Thompson had argued earlier that "the trouble was not that we had too many officers for the vessels, but too few vessels for the officers."

Initially, proponents attempted to link the legislation to one of a simple expedient to make the fleet stronger and more effective. Then, congressional critics rose to ridicule such a requirement. The strong-Navy faction pointed to a recent confrontation between Peru and Chile, and noted with disdain that the U.S. Navy—if required to intervene—would have been hopelessly overwhelmed and outgunned. In response, a contrary view appeared in the pacifist sentiments of one congressman: "If the lack of a strong Navy prevented us from beginning a costly and criminal war with Chili [sic] it was something to be thankful for." Robeson countered with a scathing polemic, suggesting that a strong U.S. naval presence would have prevented Chile's dismemberment of Peru. But representative after representative argued that the absence of a strong Navy kept the United States out of foreign imbroglios: "a man who has a loaded revolver in his hip pocket is not only apt to use it in the first quarrel he gets into, but he is more likely to get into a quarrel on account of it," one congressman posited.

Undeterred, Robeson introduced HR 6527 on 17 June 1882, then withdrew it five days later to add a proviso increasing the number of assistant and passed-assistant paymasters. The legislation contained specific limits on the number of Navy officers at each rank in the line, but the most significant portion of the bill limited the number of graduates commissioned to existing vacancies in the fleet; the remaining naval cadets and cadet engineers would be discharged with severance pay.

The influential Army-Navy Journal weighed in with an editorial, suggesting that as a result of Robeson's bill, all Naval Academy graduates for the next dozen years would be discharged. Meanwhile, the House Naval Affairs Committee voted against the proviso, calling for the promotion of captains to rear admirals by the action of selection boards. Critics charged that such a measure invited favoritism, and that stipulation in Robeson's bill died. Then, tempers grew increasingly shorter. On 6 July, an opponent of Robeson's bill chose to demean the latter's controversial tenure as Secretary of the Navy. The Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee outraged the sensibilities of his colleagues by exclaiming that: "Mr. Robeson's management of the Navy Department was extravagant and inefficient, if it was nothing worse, and if he were not a person of exceptional audacity and self-assertion he would long ago have ceased to have any voice in shaping the policy of the government or naval affairs." Another member denounced the scurrilous attack as a "disgrace to both participants and an insult to the body of which they are members," while a journalist ridiculed the exchange as a "contest of black-guardism in the House of Representatives."

Nonetheless, Robeson's bill had support not only in the House but in naval circles as well. The Army-Navy Journal referred to "those officers who have been struggling for such changes as are proposed, it cannot be denied that no measure of such vital importance to the organization of the Navy has been, of late years at least, proposed to Congress." Then, on 10 July, the Senate introduced its version of the bill, which limited commissions from the Naval Academy only to those equal to vacancies of the previous year, and then based on order of merit. But the upper house opted to postpone the legislation until 1886, so as to prevent injustice to those either at Annapolis or serving with the fleet on post-graduation cruises. Three days later, the Senate linked the debate to proposed increases in naval construction. Dialogue over minutiae dominated much of the debate, as the worthies on Capitol Hill demonstrated concerns with such matters as chaplaincies and sailmakers. One senator argued for the option of offering voluntary retirement after 30 years of service, but others argued that three decades was far too short a time in uniform to qualify for a pension. Ultimately, concerns returned to naval construction-a contentious topic; one senator snarled that: "the past 20 years of construction in his country have been signalized [sic] by prodigious blundering and costly folly."

On 12 July, the proposed legislation suffered the scrutiny of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Dissatisfied even after Secretary Chandler's testimony in support of the measure, the committee referred it to a special subcommittee for further study. Finally, on 13 July, the committee agreed to adoption and referred the measure to the full Senate. A flurry of amendments failed therein, and ultimately, the Senate sustained the House version of the legislation. Clearly, worried constituents affected by the proposed reductions had the ears of their senators. When the Senate Naval Affairs Committee met, none of its members found the courage to agree to the personnel reorganization features of the legislations. Again, senators chose to form a select committee to study the problem, but this time to include outside participation: two senators, three representatives, the Secretary of the Navy, and three Navy officers. Once again, the bill failed in committee and returned to the House. Meanwhile, a disgusted Senate leadership treated the legislation as a matter for appropriations rather than strictly a naval bill. On 27 July, the Senate voted 34 to 29 in favor of the personnel adjustments. Disgruntled observers noted sarcastically that passage meant simply that the Appropriations Committee was more powerful than the Naval Affairs Committee. A final and feeble attempt to return the legislation to the Senate Appropriations Committee, with instructions to strike out all legislation changing existing laws governing personnel, failed with a vote of 29 in favor and 34 against. The editor of the Army-Navy Journal took the Senate to task by scoring the partisan bickering and posturing to the demands of constituents; worse, the editorial noted, was the obvious ignorance on the part of some senators in naval matters.

In the House, Robeson took the floor: "In 1864, in time of war, when every one of our vessels was supposed to be fully manned, we had on the steamship Lancaster 11 line officers, and we now have 30. On the steamers Hartford and Pensacola we had 16 line officers in time of war, when the ships were fully manned; now we have 26 line officers, in time of peace." Another congressman drew a hearty round of laughter and applause when he noted that: "In time of peace, admirals are appointed as men grow old, only the survival of the stupidest on the rolls instead of the promotion of the best."

On 31 July 1882, the Senate passed its version of the naval bill but with the addition of several amendments added by the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. Supporters waxed disappointment and predicted that the House surely would not concur, resulting in a joint committee to fashion a compromise. But then Robeson surprised his colleagues by agreeing to the Senate amendments on the naval appropriations bill, specifically canceling the construction of four additional monitors and postponing construction programs previously approved. In oratorical splendor, Robeson put the capstone to weeks of acrimonious debate: Although he might have agreed with the Senate in its curtailment of naval construction, he could not countenance abandoning the personnel aspects of the bill. Robeson ended the debate with a request for a conference committee with the House: "[I] insist that the House of Representatives insist on its disagreement to the amendment of the Senate to the naval appropriations bill, and agree to the conference asked by the Senate on the disagreeing votes of the two houses."

By then, both houses had grown weary with the haggling. Critics in the Senate found folly in delaying such important legislation until the final days of a congressional session. Often, in oppressive heat and humidity, a quorum could not be raised in either body. Finally, both houses conferred on the bill on 4 August 1882 and passed it a day later. Significant, for the Class of 1881 especially, was the bill's specification that "only one-half of the vacancies in the various grades in the line of the Navy shall be filled by promotion until such grades shall be reduced to the following numbers, namely: from 12 to 6 rear admirals, from 25 to 10 commodores, from 50 to 45 captains, from 90 to 85 commanders, from 80 to 74 lieutenant commanders, from 280 to 250 lieutenants, from 100 to 75 masters, and from 100 to 75 ensigns." The legislation specified that no appointments from the Naval Academy could take place without two vacancies on the lineal list. Victorious proponents trumpeted that the reductions eliminated redundancy and offered Navy officers more varied responsibilities and duties. As a final blow to the Class of 1881 and those behind them, Congress refused to offer the consolation of a year's sea pay on top of the previously-agreed severance pay of a year's salary; the legislators concluded that a free education was remuneration enough.

The Class of 1881

Word of the legislation doubtless caused concern not only for the Class of 1881 but also the Class of 1882. To implement it, the Naval Academy's Academic Board became the vehicle to select those who would remain in the Navy and those who would be discharged. The challenge was to devise a system that placed both the naval cadets and cadet engineers on one merit-based list for commissioning. But the two distinct groups had undertaken differing programs of study for four years, then spent most of the next two years applying these academic lessons in varying positions within the fleet.

Apparent disadvantages for the cadet engineers appeared superfluous. Seamanship remained the only stumbling block, and the Academic Board concluded that the cadet engineers could likely overcome this disadvantage with diligent study. As a compromise, the superintendent ruled that if any cadet engineer failed a portion of the qualifying examination in which he had demonstrated proficiency as an undergraduate, then he passed.

On 23 May 1882, the chief of the Bureau of Navigation notified the superintendent of orders to all midshipmen to return to the Naval Academy. As the stunned graduates collected in Annapolis, 16 of their number petitioned Secretary Chandler simply to ignore the provisions of the act as it applied to their class; obviously, the Secretary of the Navy had no such authority to defy the wishes of Congress and the President, and Chandler so informed the disappointed group. As the graduates sweated over their examinations, the Academic Board contrived an aggregate score composed of 50% for academic performance as an undergraduate, 10% based on evaluations made during the post-graduation cruise, and the final 40% taken as a result of post-cruise examinations. On 20 June 1883, Chandler informed Ramsay that a total of three naval constructors, seven ensigns of the line, three assistant engineers, and ten second lieutenants in the Marine Corps could be commissioned from the Class of 1881. The Secretary added that, except for the top graduates designated as assistant naval constructors, the remaining naval cadets and cadet engineers had the freedom to choose Navy line, Navy engineering, or the Marine Corps. A week later, Chandler sent orders to Ramsay with the authority to discharge "those about whom there seems to be no doubt."

Stunned, the disappointed classmates formed ranks like no other class before and appealed to Congress. A bill to amend the Act of 5 August 1882 originated in the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and then was passed in the full Senate; even then, the legislation contained a minority report: "The fact that they [the Class of 1881] received a gratuitous education for no merits or services of their own does not give them any claims upon the government, which has already granted them benefits incalculably in excess of those which it is able to give to the sons of citizens generally." But the measure failed to move the House Naval Affairs Committee, and it never reached the floor for a vote. Subsequent attempts failed also, as Capitol Hill grew increasingly impatient with the pleading.

Some of the graduates, however, achieved success through the courts. Two discharged cadet engineers appealed their cases to the U.S. Court of Claims. Both argued that the Secretary of the Navy had erred when he applied the congressional edict retroactively, because they had graduated already. The court agreed, but because the appealing graduates had been cadet engineers and not naval cadets, it only nullified the edict as it applied to the former. But by the time of the verdict in 1885, it affected only 12 or 13 members of the Classes of 1881 and 1882, as the others had accepted the decision of the Secretary and gone on to other pursuits.

In the near term, the Act of 5 August 1882 had a deleterious effect on the Naval Academy. Disorderly conduct, an increased tendency to ignore rules and regulations, and a disinclination to apply themselves to their studies punctuated the behavior of the naval cadets for years. Less than a year after passage of the onerous legislation, officers put down a minor mutiny at Annapolis. Superintendent Ramsay complained bitterly to Secretary Chandler:

The Law of August 5th has made much of the trouble . . and cadets do not hesitate to tell me that they do not study as there is no chance of their remaining in the service . . . cadets go into their examinations and do not attempt to answer many of the questions given them [because] at least two-thirds of each [class have] not the least chance of getting into the Navy under the present law.

Although disappointed, the Class of 1881 demonstrated in subsequent endeavors that the Department of the Navy had squandered valuable assets. John Weeks enjoyed a successful career in politics, first as a congressman from Massachusetts and then as one of its senators. Subsequently, he served in the Harding and Coolidge administrations as Secretary of War. Ovington Weller entered politics as well, and became one of Maryland's senators. Others joined their states' naval militias and then answered the call to the colors during the Spanish American War; one who did, Samuel Bryan, remained in uniform after the conflict and during a tour at the Naval Academy identified tainted milk as the cause of a gastrointestinal disorder that felled many of the midshipmen. William H. Stayton, who served briefly as a Marine when his class standing precluded him from a Navy commission, became the first president of the Naval Academy Alumni Association.

Of the 11 members of the class who entered the Marine Corps, only four ranked high enough to have chosen either Navy line or Navy engineering. For the smaller of the naval services, the influx of better-educated young men, more likely to remain for a full-service career, brought welcome relief to decades of administrative wrangling between various Secretaries of the Navy and their Commandants of the Marine Corps. Every Commandant from Archibald Henderson (1820-1859) onward had argued in vain for a reliable source of new officers. The Act of 5 August 1882 satisfied that requirement, apparently. Despite euphoria in Marine Corps circles then and since, examination of the records of those 11 officers suggests the optimism was overstated. Of the group, one drowned while on active service and another resigned after a decade in uniform. The remaining nine graduates remained in uniform ostensibly for full-service careers. But two of them received courts-martial for drunken behavior, and a medical board retired another after his severe bouts of delirium tremens precluded further active service. Another's bizarre behavior was attributed to alcohol abuse as well. Two other members of the class also drank to excess and involved themselves in scandalous womanizing and divorces, enraging genteel naval circles of the era. But one Marine in the Class of 1881 served as Commandant from 1914 until his stormy ouster in 1920.

The ordeal of this legislation brought the Class of 1881 close together. Such solidarity among classmates from the Naval Academy, or perhaps any institution of higher learning, is unique. The Second Annual Report, Class of 1881, spoke reams about such fraternal feelings: "No other class from the Academy has ever demonstrated its possession and retention of a like fraternal spirit under equal discouragements." The last graduate to retire from active service, Colonel Constantine M. Perkins, added a melancholy postscript to the events of 1882: "I am the last of my class, which includes the Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, and Senator Ovide E. Weller of Maryland. It affords food for thought to reflect that in a competitive examination, I was found worthy of being retained and commissioned while they, as well as three-fourths of my class, were mustered out as ineligible."

Lieutenant Colonel Bartlett is a frequent contributor to Naval Institute publications and has won several military history literary awards.


Merrill L. Bartlett served as an officer in the Marine Corps for twenty years, with final assignment at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned three awards for excellence in teaching history. He is the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of seven books on naval history, and he has published more than a hundred essays, encyclopedia entries, forewords to books, and book reviews. He lives on Vashon Island, WA.

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